P Chidambaram's chickens have finally come home to roost, but why is Congress committing hara-kiri?
The optics of Chidambaram running away and hiding from the law are worse than Chidambaram facing and cooperating with agencies.
The Delhi High Court on Tuesday took away the protective umbrella that had shielded Chidambaram for so long from coercive action.
If Chidambaram is innocent of the crimes for which he is being prosecuted, why is he evading the law?
Instead of appearing as a fugitive from justice — à la Vijay Mallya — the former Union home minister should have seized the opportunity to set an example.
The chickens have come home to roost for P Chidambaram. The CBI has now taken the former Union home and finance minister into custody for interrogation. It seems the Rajya Sabha MP — who had been enjoying perpetual ‘interim’ judicial protection from arrest by investigative agencies for his alleged role in two decade-old corruption cases since March last year — has finally run out of luck.
In two telling blows, the Delhi High Court on Tuesday took away the protective umbrella that had shielded Chidambaram for so long from coercive action by the probe agencies. Justice Sunil Gaur of the Delhi High Court, who is due to retire on Thursday, in his order turned down the former home minister’s plea for anticipatory bail and then ended the interim protection that Chidambaram had been enjoying.
These legal measures had prevented the CBI and ED from arresting him in cases of alleged corruption and money laundering in the Rs 350-crore INX media bribery scam and Rs 3,500-crore Aircel-Maxis deal. Both cases relate to FIPB clearance during the time when the senior Congress leader was the Union finance minister in the Manmohan Singh Cabinet.
According to a report in Live Law, there are “two FIRs registered against Chidambaram under the Prevention of Corruption Act and the Prevention of Money Laundering Act, which were investigated by the CBI and the ED, respectively. The CBI registered the FIR in 2017 and the ED did it in 2018.”
The observations made by Justice Gaur while passing Tuesday’s order — that came as a major setback for Chidambaram — were telling. Dismissing the Rajya Sabha MP’s plea for anticipatory bail, Justice Gaur in a 24-page judgment observed that the evidence collected by the probe agencies prima facie reveals that the petitioner is the “king pin or the key conspirator” and that this was a “classic case of money laundering”.
The high court held that probe agencies are justified in their demand for Chidambaram’s custodial interrogation because the economic crimes of such “mammoth scale are craftily planned and executed”. The court further observed that “in this case, in view of the enormous material placed on record in respect of distinguished entities, various transactions etc, this court unhesitatingly opines that the bail plea is not acceptable.” According to the Delhi High Court, “simply because Chidambaram is a Member of Parliament would not justify grant of pre-arrest bail to him (sic)” and “granting bail in cases like the instant one will send a wrong message to society”.
The judgment also notes the “huge magnitude of conspiracy angle qua the petitioner” and observes that “it would be premature to jump to a conclusion that the provision of Prevention of Money Laundering Act (PMLA) would not apply to the instant case, as it cannot be said that the amount involved is below Rs 30 lakh. Rather money laundering involved in this INX Media scam is Rs 305 crore and Aircel-Maxis scandal is Rs 3,500 crore.”
Chidambaram’s reaction has been interesting. The Rajya Sabha MP and former Union minister's whereabouts were earlier unknown to the agencies for over 24 hours. Meanwhile, his legal team led by senior Congress lawyers such as Kapil Sibal, Salman Khurshid and Abhishek Manu Singhvi has been frenetically moving the Supreme Court seeking its urgent intervention and interim protection.
There was a further setback waiting for the former Union home minister on Wednesday. On Wednesday morning, Justice NV Ramana, who, along with Justices M Shantanagoudar and Ajay Rastogi of the Supreme Court had heard the urgent listing of Chidambaram’s bail plea seeking protection from arrest, ordered the file to be placed before the Chief Justice of India for consideration. According to reports, Chidambaram’s counsel Sibal had requested the apex court bench to grant interim protection from arrest till the listing is done, but the request was not entertained.
The long and short of the furious legal wrangle still underway in the Supreme Court is that Chidambaram — who has now been arrested — had exhausted all his legal options to challenge the action against him. The Supreme Court provided Chidambaram with no interim relief.
Earlier, the CBI conducted two raids at Chidambaram’s residence to locate him, and after failing to find him there, pasted a notice outside his house ordering him to appear before the agency within “two hours”. The ED, meanwhile, issued a "lookout’ notice" against him.
— ANI (@ANI) August 21, 2019
Amid these fast-paced developments, a few points emerge that need to be answered by Chidambaram himself.
If he is innocent of the crimes for which he is being prosecuted, why is he evading the law? The very fact that the agencies were unable to trace the Rajya Sabha MP after the Delhi High Court's order for over 24 hours suggests that he was uncomfortable and unwilling to be taken into ED or CBI custody. And therein lies the rub. If the probe agencies are motivated by “political vendetta”, as Chidambaram and his party have been claiming all along, what prevents him from appearing before the agencies and cooperating with the probe if he has nothing to hide? That may restore Chidambaram’s fast-eroding moral capital.
Instead of appearing as a fugitive from justice — à la Vijay Mallya — the former Union home minister should have seized the opportunity to set an example and shown conviction in his statement that he is innocent. That would have sent a political message that the Narendra Modi government is “hounding” him and his family members for political reasons. Although he has now been arrested, the agencies are unlikely to keep him in custody for long. The optics of Chidambaram running away and hiding from the law are worse than Chidambaram facing and cooperating with agencies.
In much the same vein, the Congress, too, is out to commit political hara-kiri. Since the unfolding of events on Wednesday, Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi have tweeted out their support for the former Union home minister and have predictably played the cliched ‘victim card’ to stave off another political crisis. The problem is, the Gandhi scions have exposed yet again their political immaturity in doing so.
Priyanka Gandhi posted two tweets on Wednesday, in which she stated —
but the truth is inconvenient to cowards so he is being shamefully hunted down. We stand by him and will continue to fight for the truth no matter what the consequences are.
— Priyanka Gandhi Vadra (@priyankagandhi) August 21, 2019
She should have realised that the developments that have unfolded regarding Chidambaram — that she describes as the senior Congress leader “being shamefully hunted down” — took place following an order passed by the Delhi High Court which took away Chidambaram’s legal umbrella. The Supreme Court, too, has refused so far to provide interim relief. Moreover, the Delhi High Court judgment clearly states that “it is preposterous to say that prosecution of the petitioner is baseless, politically motivated and an act of vendetta ... The offenders must be exposed, no matter what their status is.”
Therefore, by backing Chidambaram in the present scenario and alleging that all actions against him are motivated by a political agenda, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra has ended up maligning the judiciary and exposing her lack of faith in it. This is also the position taken by Rahul Gandhi, the once-upon-a-time-prime minister-in-waiting, whose political naïveté is painfully evident from his tweet.
Modi's Govt is using the ED, CBI & sections of a spineless media to character assassinate Mr Chidambaram.
I strongly condemn this disgraceful misuse of power.
— Rahul Gandhi (@RahulGandhi) August 21, 2019
The ED and the CBI have got the licence to go after the former Union home minister because of his alleged misdeeds, and because the judiciary has finally robbed him of his legal immunity. To blame his predicament on the media is childish and petty. But then, the Gandhi family frequently confuses loyalty to the country with loyalty to The Family. It is not their fault.
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